Those of us who love fiction are accustomed to suspending our disbelief and enjoying a bit of illusion versus reality; if we are also music lovers, some rock and roll thrown in sweetens the deal. So, do I have a magical trip for you fiction and music lovers: the 1994 novel December by Phil Rickman has been republished along with a CD of songs by Philosopher’s Stone, the novel’s fictional band of psychic musicians, brought together one fateful night to record an album in a haunted Welsh abbey. This most recent collaboration between writer Phil Rickman and musician Allan Watson is one to have on your radar.

December, long out of print, has enjoyed a sort of cult following and more than one movie option. At long last, readers can buy a signed special edition offered by Mansion House Books, as well as a Kindle edition, with a Corvus print version and Isis audio book due soon. And even better, an Abbey Tapes: the Exorcism CD, a veritable soundtrack to December, became available as of December 8, 2011. If that date rings a bell… yes, it is John Lennon’s death date, which figures prominently in the novel’s plot. So get the tracks from iTunes or Amazon, or order the CD (info at Rickman’s website), or the special MHB signed book with CD, and settle into a comfy chair for a long eerie night of rock n’ reading. (update: Bloody hell, they’re even on Spotify now.)

Without giving away too much of the story, here’s the gist: In December of 1980, four musicians were invited to the ancient Black Abbey in Ystrad Ddu, Wales, near the holy mountain, the Skirrid, to record an album as the band Philosopher’s Stone. It turned out to be an almost cruel trick by the record producer to exploit these sensitive, psychic artists. The Abbey itself had been haunted since the 12th century when the Welsh bard Aelwyn Breadwinner (Breuddwydiwr, Welsh for “Dreamer”) died there. And each of the musicians had his own ghosts or obsessions which all seemed to come into play that fateful night, December 8… the same night John Lennon was killed. Some horrific things happen.

The musicians scatter and live with the damage done that night. The tapes for the notorious “Black Album” recorded that night were thought to be destroyed. But fourteen years later, the tapes resurface and the group is persuaded to reunite for another session. For the group and their friend/producer, Prof Levin, it becomes a reluctant attempt to heal, exorcise perhaps, the evils which still haunt them, the Abbey, the town and the Skirrid. Plenty of fascinating characters, bits of Welsh history and mystery, and scary stuff goes on.  December has been called “horror” and does have just enough blood, guts, and ghosts to satisfy that genre; but the depth of characterization and empathy elevate the novel beyond horror and in fact it works as a murder mystery/crime fiction. Rickman likes to call it a ghost story. Suffice it to say, if you are looking for cozy, you’d best look elsewhere.  Especially alluring are Rickman’s sardonic humor, occasional eroticism, and tidbits about the inner workings of the music industry.

The fab psychic four:

Dave Reilly is from Liverpool and has an affinity for John Lennon, though he (and most fans) derided Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy. He talks to Lennon in his head and has visited the Dakota and Strawberry Fields in NYC; he makes a living doing a one-man show in nightclubs consisting of startlingly accurate impersonations of Lennon, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and others. He pines away with unrequited love for Moira and tries to protect her from his dark visions.

Moira Cairns is the beautiful black-haired Scottish folk singer, the daughter of a clairvoyant gypsy mother who gave her an ancient magical hair comb. She experienced a strict upbringing by her Presbyterian grandmother, rebelling when she began to experience her powers. She appears later in another novel, The Man in the Moss, where she performs “The Comb Song”, and she turns up again in the Merrily Watkins books to perform with Lol Robinson.

Tom Storey is the most famous of the group- an electric blues guitarist from East London once compared to Clapton and Jeff Beck. The most erratic (“don’t worry Tom” they all say), Tom has a Down’s child, Vanessa, who also “sees” and plays a pivotal role.

Simon St John is a classically-trained musician who plays electric bass guitar, cello, and flute. He has become a Church of England vicar in Ystrad Ddu and by night is haunted by the ghost of the Black Abbot. Simon and Tom pop up again later in Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.

Shaken together, the four musicians form a volatile cocktail of music, necromancy, aura reading, and divination- but they are as human and believable as you or I. If you’ve read December, you know about the fictional songs recorded at the abbey and that there were even scatterings of lyrics in the text. On Abbey Tapes, we finally get to hear the song which Dave Reilly fears caused John Lennon’s death, “On a Bad Day.”  Dave is ragging on the poor dead Beatle, berating him for lowering his standards on Double Fantasy, but betrays his love for Lennon with a heartbreaking “Are we ever gonna see you again?” chorus. Also included is “Dakota Blues”, Dave’s description of his visit to the Dakota in Central Park replete with Lennon-like voice and guitar touches. Tom Storey’s “Take Me to the River” is sung as a lighthearted ditty in his Cockney accent, but then reprised in “Take Me 2” as a mournful, bluesy version with Tom’s signature electric guitar as played by Allan Watson. The short instrumental “Vanessa” is a gorgeous complexly-chorded tribute to the  little heroine. Cheryl Reid’s beautiful voice is a highlight of the album, with her “Comb Song” a haunting Celtic melody; that song, while mentioned early in the text, figures more prominently in The Man in the Moss and the novel does not mention that the band played it at the Abbey. However, the comb was working its magic and lucky for us Prof was there to record it. And Moira’s beautiful gypsy tune “Sweeter” is a lovely interlude.

“Liverpool Unplugged” features Rickman’s divine reading voice (he’s a BBC radio announcer and reads Traherne’s poetry on his other albums) telling the true story of the infamous power outage of 1993. The epic “Ballad of Aelwyn Breadwinner” recounts the tragedy of a real 12th century bard who was killed in a massacre by the Normans near Abergavenny. And the ensuing “Holy Light,” featuring Simon’s healing prayer of exorcism, is glorious with its keyboards, violin, bass viol drone, and angelic Gregorian-like song. As in a rock opera, they do the voices. Dave’s Liverpool accent, Tom’s East London Cockney, plus bits of dialogue and sound effects embellish the tracks to bring you viscerally into the Abbey. This is a hauntingly beautiful album of original music grown organically in the ancient British folk tradition of story, myth, and landscape.

In case you are in terror of your hi fi melting from the novel’s  notorious Black Album, be reassured: Abbey Tapes consists of the songs from the reunion 14 years later and,  in a way, a final chapter is added to the book with this additional material discovered by Prof Levin and played by the musician friends of Phil Rickman. This isn’t the first musical collaboration between Glasgow’s Allan Watson and Rickman. They’ve done two albums already by Lol Robinson, the Merrily Watkins series character, heavily influenced by Nick Drake: Songs from Lucy’s Cottage and A Message from the Morning. Watson is a brilliant singer-songwriter with a long recording history in various Glasgow bands including Brig, Columbus Road, and Candy Séance. He’s also an avid reader, and in 2008 he and Rickman decided to complete Lol’s songs. Rickman includes snippets of lyrics in his novels, so those were fleshed out with Watson’s melodies, vocals, and electric and acoustic guitar.  It was a labor of love, then, for the pair to bring to life December’s Philosopher’s Stone, the holy grail of fictional bands. They involved other musicians including Cheryl Reid, another Glaswegian and member of Columbus Road. Poignant violin, flute, and bass parts add magic to the songs. Musician friends on several continents got into the action by recording tracks to add to the mix (Mattie Rouse, Julie Adams, Stevie Patrick, Dave Currie, Kasander). The result: Philosopher’s Stone lives! Have other such fiction/music collaborations ever taken place? Perhaps the only occurrences of their kind, these albums are a unique fusion of fictional characters and song: the imagination incarnate.

Phil Rickman writes about the borderlands between Wales and England where the “veil” is thin, that is, there is a blurring between the real and imagined, the present and past, the modern and the traditional, the living and the dead. While best known for his Merrily Watkins crime-fiction-with-a-paranormal-twist series, he first wrote a number of ghost stories such as Candlenight and Curfew, all of which are now being republished in paperback and Kindle editions by Corvus Press and worth ordering from Amazon UK if necessary. In addition, he has delved into a meeting of crime and historical fiction with his The Bones of Avalon featuring Dr. John Dee, physician and astrologist to Queen Elizabeth I, and their attendant Glastonbury/Arthurian legends (a sequel is in the works). He has authored other works under the pen names of Will Kingdom and Thom Madley.   -Julie Adams

(update: just don’t read the 1996 Berkley edition published in the US- for some reason they edited out some important details. Those Berkley butchers.)

Abbey Tapes: the Exorcism CD

CD of songs by Philosopher’s Stone, the fictional ill-fated band from the novel December, is available via Phil Rickman’s website or as MP3 downloads via Amazon and iTunes. The Black Album lives.

CD cover photograph by John Mason, this is the ruins of Llanthony Abbey in Wales, inspiration for the novel December’s setting. Llanthony is in the shadow of the holy mountain, the Skirrid.  

My blog post about the novel, the music, the project, here: https://brightjul.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/deepest-darkest-december/

Can you believe it has been almost 2 years since the release of abbey tapes: the exorcism? Gorgeous music for an outstanding book. http://www.philrickman.co.uk/the-shop/

My favorite author’s new book! Long awaited, it’s just fantastic. I ordered my copy from Amazon UK, but here’s the Amazon US link And my Amo review is below:

Merrily is called upon by friend and policeman Frannie Bliss when a local murder victim’s house proves to have a huge library of occult books; related tangents have the pair then involved in some new and old mysteries in nearby Hay-on-Wye’s bookshops and Capel-y-ffin’s mountain top church. Phil Rickman’s books can always be enjoyed on so many levels- that of crime fiction, local Welsh and English legend, supernatural and religious mystery, and just plain excellent characters. For us book-lovers, the setting of Hay with its castle and bookshops and lore is right up our alley. Old friends return, such as Gwynn Arthur Jones and Robin and Betty Thorogood. I was relieved that Robin doesn’t wind up a stereotyped stupid American; in fact he gains acceptance and respect among the other eccentric booksellers in Hay. Lol’s on tour recording a third Hazey Jane II album, we hope. Rickman leaves no taboo unturned, exposing the base and sinister sides of humanity- not unique to the Welsh border, of course. Merrily with her “peculiar tangents” achieves a sort of deliverance of her own. Rickman- one of my favorite writers ever!

Sydney's_sketch_large
I’m honored to be the subject of a sketch by the lovely Sydney, a student at our school. She was doodling in the margins at convo on October 29, 2013 when the TWC band played a few numbers. I’m so flattered! Thanks, Sydney.

OAFMM available on Amazon US and UK and iTunes, and apparently Spotify even…. Thanks to Teri for this lovely first review. Who’s next?

There was Clapton, Green, Beck, and Storey….
Who knew- Fleetwood Mac was originally a blues band? I plead clueless American.

AW Guitar
Allan Watson has just released 11 brilliant new songs with his latest album, On a Fine May Morning, under musical nom de plume Candy Séance. It’s a free listen/download from SoundCloud. I met Allan in 2009 when Songs from Lucy’s Cottage, his first album with Phil Rickman, had just come out. We became friends due to similar musical and reading interests, and along the way, Allan has encouraged my flute habit while I’ve been a lucky listener and reader of his many creations, even collaborating on a few songs. His impressive music, like his fiction, hints at the darker side of life: loss, revenge, desire, jealousy, death and the supernatural. Allan’s melodies, arrangements, vocals and guitar playing are on a par with the big names out there today. His blog has more details about the CD.

Allan and his alter ego, Strachan McQuade, have caused quite a stir of late, interviewing writers, artists and musicians with a special brand of humor. See the Dead Man Talking interview series on Allan’s blog. So, what a coup to turn the tables on Allan and get him to answer questions about his fantastic new album! Listen in while Allan is squirming in the hot seat for once. Oh dear, I asked for it…..

Julie: Tell us about the songs on your new album, On a Fine May Morning. How did ‘Pig in a Poke’ come into existence?

Allan: Pig in a Poke is about early (teenage) experiments with heroin. I sort of got suckered into it at the time but it was well… interesting. If nothing else the experience provided me with subject matter for a few songs over the years, namely ‘The Trick Inside’ and ‘Prayer for a Laughing Needle’, later renamed as ‘Sad Songs’ by producer Graham bloody Lyle who thought the original title was too long. Other songs on the album cover more cheery larks like suicide (‘When I Close My Eyes’), shagging the Faery Queen (‘The Water and the Grain’), and an over the top, breast-beating, self-pitying, moan-fest about suffering writer’s block (‘Long Way Round’).

Julie: Other highlights are the title track, the rockin’ ‘Sunspots’, that beautiful ballad ‘Unstitched’ and of course ‘Trains’ with its lush acoustic guitar layers:

Julie: Your songs, like your fiction, tend toward the dark and macabre, but often toward the romantic. Few of the songs have the humor that is in your fiction, however; why is that?

Allan: In fiction you can inject humor into almost any genre without destroying the overall tone of the story. Throw a few jokes into a horror story and it’s still a horror story, same with a crime novel, but putting humor into songs is dicing with death. Get it wrong and you sound like Benny Hill. In saying that there are jokes in my songs, they’re just well hidden.

Julie: Describe your songwriting process- music first or words first?

Allan: Normally music first – chords, riffs, whatever, then melody and finally words. Writing with Phil Rickman for the Lol Robinson albums was strange at first as Phil supplied the words and I had to write the music around the lyrics. It actually made things easier as I then already knew what the song was about and could aim for a certain mood and tempo.

AW liquid ship2

Julie: How did you first get into music- first guitars, bands, songs, etc? What bands and albums do you have notched into your bedposts?

Allan: Blimey, that’s about 12 questions rolled into one. I bought my first proper guitar was when I was 16, talked my mum into letting me pay it up from her catalogue. A really classy guitar as you can imagine, but it did the trick. A black Les Paul copy – the brand name was Columbus – Being lazy I started writing songs even before I’d bothered mastering the chords. I simply made up my own bespoke combinations of notes, or thought I did – looking back all I was doing was playing bits of chords and fragments of scales. Main bands I’ve played with – Brig, Columbus Road, Clear, She’s A Rocket, The Floor, Junk, Left on Red, Candy Séance and Hazey Jane II. My two days with The Bay City Rollers don’t really count.

Julie: Your albums with the awesome writer Phil Rickman (Songs from Lucy’s Cottage, A Message from the Morning, abbey tapes: the exorcism) are unique fusions of the fictional and musical worlds (Info from Rickman’s website http://www.philrickman.co.uk/pages/Shop.html) Are there any plans for more Hazey Jane II or Philosopher’s Stone albums or gigs?

Allan: You’re asking the wrong guy.

John Gilmour Smith, Cheryl Reid, Allan Watson and Steven Patrick performing ‘Sunny Days’ from Songs From Lucy’s Cottage by Allan Watson and Phil Rickman.

Julie: I spend hours on a few tiny little flute tracks. How on earth do you arrange and record all those layers of vocals, guitars, strings, and keyboards and get them to come out sounding like anything? What sort of recording equipment do you have? (I’d love to see a photo of your studio.)

Allan: Currently I’m using a Roland BR1200, a 12 track recorder which is fine for home recording. I simply tweak knobs and slide the faders up and down in a random pattern and sometimes I get something useable. Any idiot can do it.

Julie: Yeah, right. But how do you add in tracks from far away worlds – Matti Rouse’s violin tracks from Germany, mine from Tennessee, Dr Samedi from Kidderminster?

Allan: Depends on the format I receive the tracks. Wav files can be directly imported and have a high level of sound quality. Getting emailed mp3s is a lot more trouble as I have to first save them to an ipod and then manually input them via the auxiliary channels. After that it all gets a bit time consuming placing the tracks exactly where they need to be in the time frame and cleaning up the sound. (Am I making you feel guilty yet, Julie?) (Nah) I really hate it when after spending hours doing this drudgery the musician in question then emails me an alternative take and says, can you use this instead? My standard reply is yes, no problem and then don’t bother.

Julie: I’ll work on making Wavy files instead of mp3s…
Your lovely Taylor sounds gorgeous- is it your favorite acoustic guitar? What kind of electric guitar are you playing?

Allan: Mostly an old Fender Strat I’ve used for the last 27 years. Keep meaning to buy myself a new one. So if anyone is thinking of buying me a xmas present… (hint hint) Got a few others like a hideously expensive cherry-red Gibson SG and a Fender Telecaster which hang on the wall and gather dust – as do all my older acoustic guitars now that the tonal magnificence of the Taylor has ousted them from my affections.

AW Kentchurch

Julie: What does Candy Seance mean- does it have a history? Do you like to summon deceased Mars Bars with your Ouija board?

Allan: Candy Séance was simply taken from a line I once wrote in a novel called Dreaming in the Snakepark. If memory serves me right, I was describing someone smoking a joint and filling the room with the scent of lost planets and candy séances. Ahem… writer’s license and all that. I no longer summon anything with my Ouija board. It’s for decorative purposes only. Last time it was used in earnest I had to move house.

Julie: Which song of yours would you like to be covered by which singer?

Allan: I’d love to have Tina Charles sing a cover version of ‘Heavy Medication Day’, a song I wrote with Phil Rickman.

Julie: I suspect you are being cheeky. What is your favorite song that you’ve ever written?

Allan: That would incredibly difficult. But I do have a soft spot for songs like ‘Affirmation Waystation,’ ‘Through a Whisky Glass Darkly’ and ‘Old Yellow Moon.’


‘Affirmation Waystation’, from Columbus Road’s 2009 CD Fragments.

Julie: Fantastic songs. Like Richard Thompson, you can do electric and acoustic equally well and are a too-well-kept secret. I’d think that many of your songs would be snapped up by singers who’d pay huge amounts for great songs to sing. I know the music industry is a tough one to crack, but how can your music reach a wider audience, and is there anything your loyal fans can do to help?

Allan: Send me lots of money and nude polaroids. It’ll take my mind off the crushing failure of my musical career.

Julie: And finally- what is your dream band? No getting out of it this time.

Allan: If you insist. Dave Gilmour and Richard Thompson on guitars. Tony Levin on bass. Andy Sturmer on drums. Kenneth McKellar on lead vocals.

Good luck with that. As your parting gift, here’s a copy of flutist James Galway playing the songs of Elvis Presley, entitled Galway Does Graceland.

Read more about his CDs, books and interviews on Allan’s blog: http://allanwatson.blogspot.co.uk/p/blog-page_14.html

Download the songs from SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/allan-watson-1/sets/candy-seance-on-a-fine-may

Update: The album is now on iTunes and Amazon – good reviews needed and appreciated, friends! JA, Sept. 2013


‘Through a Whisky Glass Darkly’

Fairies, a dark wood, lost love and flute music. Have a listen – I’m proud to be on this lovely song by Allan Watson, from the Candy Seance album On a Fine May Morning.

Julia - lyrics by John Lennon

I got to see the Art of John Lennon traveling exhibit recently in Asheville, NC, and while the line drawings by John are captivating I particularly enjoyed the handwritten and signed lyric sheets. You can guess why I love this song….

Blog from the Snakepark has a page about the new Candy Seance album with photos, credits, and artwork created by Allan’s friends to illustrate each song.

http://allanwatson.blogspot.co.uk/p/blog-page_14.html

Here’s Teri Rowan’s lovely image designed for “The Water and the Grain”. A fairy with a flute! The song is a haunting lament by a lad seduced by the May Queen, a sort of Tam Lin tale.
Water and the Grain Final smaller

The new songs from Candy Seance are now available! I’m pretty excited about my flute parts on “The Water and the Grain ” and “The Lady of the Runes.” Allan’s songwriting and guitar playing, composing and arranging, recording and producing, mixing and equalizing (whatever that is) are outstanding. It’s a wonder he isn’t a household name rock-n- roll star. I’ve been privileged to see the evolutions of the songs through their various demo versions and changes to the final product. Would love to play sometime in person with Allan, but I’ve made do with my USB microphone, Audacity recording software, and emailing of files some 5,000 miles away to Glasgow. Thanks, Allan, for the collaboration.

The album is a free listen/download from SoundCloud:
On a Fine May Morning

OAFMM

From the gorgeous new Candy Seance album, out soon:

In case you missed it….abbey tapes: the exorcism CD by Philosopher’s Stone, the songs from the Phil Rickman novel December, – available from the website of Phil Rickman (http://www.philrickman.co.uk/the-shop/) Email Terry at cottageindustries@ledwardine.co.uk to order.
Also available as downloads from Amazon mp3 and iTunes.
And the CD, lyrics and photos are included with the signed and numbered Mansion House Press special edition of December.

Another whimsical song from Scott Miller with me on flute! Love this one- makes me think of one of my faves, Donovan, and maybe a bit Incredible String Band. It’s a real trip through the English countryside complete with an animal orchestra and some questionable mushrooms…..
Scott and I are Richard Thompson list friends, FB friends, and Britfolk music fans, and I’m honored to play flute on three of his songs.

http://philrickman.co.uk/pages/Shop.html

abbey tapes: the exorcism, Songs from Lucy’s Cottage, and A Message from the Morning – L 5 ea plus shipping, from Terry cottageindustries@ledwardine.co.uk

These prices are criminal- so take advantage of them.

Excellent chapter ‘Borderline Gothic: Phil Rickman and the Merrily Watkins Series’ by John Whitbourn from the book 21st Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels Since 2000, ed. Daniel Olson.  Scarecrow Press,2010.

21st Century Gothic PR

MessageLol Robinson and Hazey Jane II

Before Abbey Tapes came the 2 Lol Robinson CDs- Songs from Lucy’s Cottage and A Message from the Morning. These are Lol’s songs from the Merrily Watkins series of novels by Phil Rickman. Haunting, beautiful, ethereal- with more than a nod to Lol’s Nick Drake obsession. Phil Rickman and Allan Watson have some masterpieces here in these further unique fiction/music collaborations. They are available from Terry at cottageindustries@ledwardine.co.uk or downloaded from Amazon or iTunes.

Over the last few years I’ve become a reviewer for Monsterlibrarian.com, sort of by accident, but it is a lot of fun and rather addictive. My reviews so far:

Serpent’s Kiss by Melissa de la Cruz
http://monsterlibrarian.com/horroradventure.htm#Serpent’s_Kiss_by_Melissa_de_la_Cruz

Shady Palms by Allen Dusk http://monsterlibrarian.com/slashers.htm#Shady_Palms_by_Allen_Dusk

December by Phil Rickman http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#December_by_Phil_Rickman

Carapace by Allan Watson http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#Carapace_by_Allan_Watson_

The Bone Tree by Christopher Fulbright http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#The_Bone_Tree_by_Christopher_Fulbright_

The Weird: a Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories, ed. VanderMeer
http://monsterlibrarian.com/Lovecraft.htm#The_Weird

Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce http://monsterlibrarian.com/horroradventure.htm#Some_Kind_of_Fairy_Tale

Night Sea Journey, by Paula Cappa http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#Night_Sea_Journey:_a_Tale_of_the_Supernatural

The Haunted, by Bentley Little http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#The_Haunted_by_Bentley_Little

The Dazzling Darkness, by Paula Cappa http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#The_Dazzling_Darkness_by_Paula_Cappa

Winds of Salem, by Melissa de la Cruz <a http://monsterlibrarian.com/horroradventure.htm#Winds_of_Salem:_a_Witches_of_East_End_Novel

This House is Haunted, by John Boyne http://monsterlibrarian.com/ghosts.htm#This_House_is_Haunted_by_John_Boyne

Plastic, by Christopher Fowler http://www.monsterlibrarian.com/something_different.htm#Plastic

I Have Not Answered, by Adam Grydehoj http://monsterlibrarian.com/something_different.htm#I_Have_Not_Answered_by_Adam_Grydehoj

1234, by Allan Watson http://monsterlibrarian.com/Thrillers.htm#1234_by_Allan_Watson

Ravenswing, by Jonathan Glendening http://www.monsterlibrarian.com/TheCirculationDesk/book-review-ravenswing-by-jonathan-glendening/


Beautiful song from the new Columbus Road album, Tokens